Back to the Future

Brave Combo reunites its nuclear polka family as it celebrates its 20-year anniversary

Carl Finch never thought Brave Combo would last 20 years, never thought he'd still be playing polka music two decades after he formed the band with horn player Tim Walsh, drummer Dave "Tito" Cameron, and bassist Lyle Atkinson in 1979. He was working on his master's degree in fine arts at the University of North Texas (or North Texas State University, as it was known at the time), moonlighting a few nights a week as a DJ at a country-and-western bar to make ends meet. Back then, there was no reason for Finch to think beyond the next gig, which occasionally found the band playing in a strip bar, coaxing some sweet young thing out of her top with a cumbia or a schottische. If Finch had looked ahead, maybe he would have packed it in much sooner, given up his foolish campaign to make polka music popular. But Finch never had to think about the future, because, well, there wasn't one.

Yet here he is, the sole remaining member of that original quartet, preparing to take polka into the next millennium (the band's new T-shirts read simply "Polka 2000") and determined to be the man who forces people to notice it. Finch believes -- God bless him -- that polka is poised for a breakthrough, due for the kind of commercial acceptance that Latin music is currently enjoying. He's covering all of his bases just in case, releasing a full-fledged polka disc (tentatively titled Polkasonic) on Cleveland International Records, and a pop album on Rounder Records, both due in the next few months. In the past, Finch may have counted on pop records to deliver the success he always thought the band was ready for, as he did with Brave Combo's more recent collaborations with the late Tiny Tim and vocalist Lauren Agnelli. He's not counting on it anymore. For better or worse, Brave Combo is a polka band again, and that's where Finch's enthusiasm is.

"I kind of like the association better than I ever have, because I do feel like that's the fresh frontier," Finch says. "That is the one musical style that is not just getting chewed up and spit out. I guess I would consider the polka side of this much more of a crusade now than just the fact that we're in a band. We've been so active in trying to change people's perception, and trying to get people to rearrange their ideas about what's acceptable and what's hip and what's not hip. Accepting Brave Combo is certainly an exercise in that, because we've certainly been summed up as 'not relevant' and 'goofball.' Luckily, we don't have to prove ourselves anymore. If nothing else, our reputation and history and the amount of music that we've produced have kind of quelled that. We faced that a lot more when we were first getting going."

Brave Combo, then and now
Brave Combo, then and now
Brave Combo, somewhere between now and then
Brave Combo, somewhere between now and then

Back then, Finch says, "just walking out on the stage with an accordion was enough for a five-minute laugh." Yet he persevered: The band has been through numerous lineup changes since those early days, but Finch has never left, even when the group's attempts to swim in the mainstream were ignored. You couldn't blame him if he wanted to leave the party behind, start fresh with a group that didn't have a reputation as the world's best wedding band, a novelty act, a joke. The years have only strengthened Finch's resolve, convinced him that he's been right all along, and that eventually everyone else will see it his way. It's a path that has led Finch back to the beginning.

Soon, that will literally be true. On July 24 at the Czech Club, the original lineup -- Finch, Walsh, Cameron, and Atkinson -- will be onstage together for the first time since the early '80s. The reunion gig, the first of a handful the band has planned for the remainder of the year, will also feature Finch's longtime cohorts, bassist Bubba Hernandez and multi-instrumentalist Jeffrey Barnes, both of whom have been in Brave Combo for more than a decade. Some of the other musicians who have been in the band at one time or another will also perform, including current members trumpeter Danny O'Brien and drummer Alan Emert, former drummer Mitch Marine, recently departed percussionist Joe Cripps, and "adjunct member" Mike Dillon.

"Hopefully we'll have time to do a rehearsal or two before the day," Finch says, laughing. "And you know, I don't even know what's going to come of this. I think people are going to be pretty curious. It seems like we should commemorate the 20th year. On one hand it does, at least. On the other, it seems like we should maybe wait until 25, but we might not be around."

Even if Brave Combo ended tomorrow, Finch has already done more with the band than he ever thought he would, from receiving Grammy nominations (one for 1996's Polkas for a Gloomy World, and another this year for Polka Party with Brave Combo -- Live and Wild) to film and television work (the group provided the theme song for the FOX dramedy Bakersfield P.D. and music for David Byrne's film True Stories). They're big in Japan -- isn't everyone? -- and on the festival circuit, the oompah band with most oomph. It's a career that has caused Finch and the group to become accidental ambassadors of their hometown of Denton; the city even plans to honor the band by declaring "Brave Combo Week" sometime in the next month or so.

And yet Finch isn't sure how the band made it this far. He still doesn't think about the future, but only because he's too busy with the present. The band has become his full-time job, taking him out on the road several times a month and into the studio when he's home. They have lawyers, accountants, and booking agents working for them, and they need them all. Finch wouldn't have it any other way, wouldn't change it for the world.

"I have been living in the same house for 23 years, and I've been married to the same woman for 23 years, so there's some aspect of my staying power that's pretty good, I guess," he says. "I guess maybe I don't like change a whole lot. There was always just enough incentive to keep it going. And every year the band has seen measurable growth, in terms of our fanbase and the impact that we have on the general scene, and on the polka scene for sure. There's never been enough there, from the negative point of view, to throw this away. There's always a lot of gigs every month, and a lot of opportunities to do exciting things. We can actually go record albums in a studio during the day. That's the kind of stuff you hope your life will evolve into."

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